My last year as a TEFL teacher/trainer began on 1 September.
This school year is going to be even better than last year because I know people, I know what to expect, and I’m aware of what can be considered as a helpless cause.
But before the school year began, my Peace Corps group reunited for our mid-service training (MST) at Terelj National Park outside of UB. Unlike our in-service training (IST) in December 2016, where we had to bring our counterparts along, MST was just Peace Corps.
Many of us were unprepared for how cold it was going to be. When we arrived at the park, it was pouring down with rain and we were all running into our little wooden houses. It was cold and there was no heat in any of the buildings. However, our houses had hot showers (!!!!!) and heated floors. Every night, me and my room-mate would lay our sweaters on the ground so they would be warm and toasty in the mornings. The wear was “business causal” but for me, it was wear as many layers as possible.
It’s a beautiful park once the fog and clouds lifted. From 7am to 5:30 we were stuck in sessions but afterwards we were free to do whatever we wanted. Some of us went horse back riding (which left me sore for a week), we hiked up hills, running back down, and we sat around a large bonfire. Unfortunately when we departed, the weather was warm and sunny making me wish we could stay longer.
On the first day of school, my school smelled of fresh paint as balloons and a large banner were hung outside by the front entrance. Students were back in their uniforms. I spent the first two weeks of school waiting for the teachers schedule to be completed. During September and for the duration of October, I’m teaching 5th, 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th graders in the morning with lesson planning and teacher development in the afternoon. Besides school, I was busy with Special Olympics and Teachers Day.
My amazing counterpart and friend who has helped me with so much and has accepted me as part of her family.
This year, Special Olympics was hosted in my aimeg. Teams came from four different regions with one team coming all the way from Khuvsgul. They all arrived on Thursday. Friday consisted of medical screenings and basketball, table tennis, and judo competitions. Saturday was badminton with track and field races held outside. I was asked to take photographs and was kept busy, walking from one spot to the other, snapping away. They were so happy to be competing and racing each other.
Teachers Day is when 12 grade students become teachers for the day while the teachers become the students. This is a holiday 12th graders are very excited about. In the morning, teachers trade places with their students and sit at the desks while a student teaches. We are also given a 12th grader to later exchange gifts with in the evening. My 12th grader took her role very seriously. We met the night before so she could create the perfect lesson plan and she did an amazing job. Last year, my school had a volleyball competition but this year my school had a teachers talent contest.
You can read about teachers day from last year here.
More marvelous things that have since happened:
I finally have internet. Now I don’t have to walk 20-minutes to a restaurant and order the cheapest item on the menu as I use their internet.
For a long time, my building’s heating was broken. I was told it wouldn’t be fixed for another two or three weeks making me cry out in anguish. My apartment was so frigid I got sick and shivered myself to sleep. Thankfully, it didn’t take three weeks to fix and now my home is blessedly warm. Why do I make such a big deal out of this? Because in Mongolia, air conditioning doesn’t exist and heating comes from a central system which people can’t control on how hot it gets.
My aimeg has two new health volunteers. There are now four of us.
I’m re-watching “The Office” and “Gilmore Girls” thus bringing joy to my life when the language barrier becomes to much or when something breaks in my apartment or even when people hoot and “OY” at me as I’m trying to go about my business.
There was a silly moment during my school’s track and field day when my name was called and one of the teachers was holding out a medal for me. I thought, “I have done absolutely nothing that warrants a medal but okay…” Conveniently my two counterparts disappeared so I didn’t know what everyone was yelling. But apparently they just wanted me to place the medal around the neck of another teacher. I’m nearly just walked off with the medal.
I’m eagerly awaiting a box of books for my school I’ve asked an organization in America to send.
I took a long deep breath and signed up to take the GRE in December.
We have a new café in town called Friends Café. The woman who owns it went to university in America and used to live in Naperville. Small world!!
People always ask if I’m cold. They all think I’m to skinny for a Mongolian winter. That I need more meat on my bones.
July was a dull month. When I flew back from Cambodia, all the adrenaline wore off as I took the bus back to my little town. It rained a lot. During the heavy rain storms, some of the rain would find its way through a small crack in my ceiling and slowly filter down my wallpaper. As I read in bed I could see the water stains over the top of my book slowly evaporating to a dark stain, thus making the ugly wallpaper even uglier. July consisted of a plethora amount of baking, watching movies, reading, and spending time with my site mate whose Peace Corps service was coming to a glorious end. The only highlight was wearing my new deel to Naadam where I watched some of the events, wrestling and archery, but that only holds my attention for so long. The whole entire time I was counting down until August.
My parents visited Mongolia!
For two-weeks, I explored the Gobi Desert and Ulaanbaatar with my mom and dad. 14-months was the longest I had gone without seeing them. I was extremely happy to see them and to hear Swedish being spoken again.
My parents visited Mongolia through a travel agency called Nomadic Expeditions. The agency had a two-week travel itinerary planned that took us around the capital city and throughout the Gobi. Our group consisted of only five people: the Buchanan family, a female traveler called Billy, and our tour guide, Tseveen. We had been expecting more people but were delighted with our close-knit group. We even managed to squeeze in some invigorating and competitive games of Heads Up during the evenings.
While in UB, we stayed at the Shangri La. One of the nicest hotels I’ve ever stayed in. I traded the slab of concrete I sleep on for a bed that felt like a cloud, 15-second cold showers for long hot showers, wifi, and I could watch TV, (HBO!!!) I had trouble sleeping my first night because I wasn’t used to the comfort. The hotel also connects to the Shangri La Mall. Without needing to go outside, we wandered over for shopping and the movie theater.
I will first write briefly about what we saw and did in the city.
We visited three temples. The first was Gandantegchinlen Monastery, the center of Mongolian Buddhists. There are 150 monks currently residing at the monastery. The second one was Choijin Lama Temple. This temple is situated right in the middle of the city, surrounded by new buildings such as the Shangri La and the Blue Sky. A perfect example of old vs new in UB. When you look upwards, you can see the angles and faded colors of the temple roof alongside the blue glass of the city’s skyscrapers. The third temple was part of the Winter Palace which is also a museum. All the temples are lively with various colors and carvings of faces and animals on the roofs. Furthermore, we visited the National Musuemand an art museum plus the Winter Palace.
Over the Peace Bridge, there is the Zaisan Memorial for Soviet soldiers killed in WWII. At the top, is a panorama view of the whole city. We also met an eagle.
Move activities consisted of cashmere shopping and seeing the National Mongolian Orchestra perform.
We also spent a night at Hustai National Park. Despite the rain, we drove into the park to see Mongolian wild horses also known as Przewalksi’s horse. As we drove, we spotted eagles, falcons, and fat marmots. Our driver had eyes like a hawk because even while driving he spotted the horses in a nanosecond. The first time I couldn’t see the horses even with binoculars but 20-minutes later we came across two-herds grazing near each other upon the hillside. They’re very small and yellow like small smudges. We weren’t allowed to get to close.
We had to leave at 4:30 am for the airport. We flew a small plane for an hour and 20 minutes from UB to Ömnögovi province. I was dozing away for the most part but when I was briefly awake, I could hear English, German, and Japanese being spoken. Two cars met us and for another hour we drove over bumpy grassland to the Three Camel Lodge, one of National Geographic’s unique lodges of the world. It is also the most luxurious ger camp in Mongolia. Each ger is named after an animal. I stayed in the Pallas Cat while my parents stayed in the Snow Leopard. In addition, there’s a lounge with a bar, a dining room, an entertainment lounge, and a massage ger. However, there is no internet or cell service. Not too far away from the camp is a watering hole where herds of horses would come stampeding for along with goats, sheep, and the occasional cow. There is absolutely nothing as far as the eye can see. No roads, no telephone lines, no billboards. Just the flat Gobi grasslands stretching all the way to the Altai Mountains.
We did a lot while traversing the desert. While walking, lizards skittered around our feet diving for cover, small gazelles leaped through the grass, and we even spotted a small snake slithering away, (much to the delight of my dad).
On day one, we hiked up to the top of hills and saw petroglyphs. Immediately following the hike, we biked back to the lodge. Due to the bumpy trail, my arms became sore from all the shaking and my fingers were clenched tightly over the handle bars as I fought to make sure I didn’t go flying off.
We didn’t just stay at the Three Camel Lodge. On days two and three, we were driven in a circular route that took us to new sites. The sights were incredible. Sand dunes on one side with the Altai Mountains cresting on the other.
We met a nomadic family. This family we met was even larger than expected because family was visiting from central Mongolia. My parents drank airag for the first time and saw how nomadic families survive by milking their horses and goats, using solar panels for electricity, and using a car battery to watch TV. Mongolian horses are very skittish. This family had a large herd and we watched one of the boys trying to break a new horse but falling in the process.
During the night of day 2, we slept in tents. I was laughing at the image of my mom sleeping in a sleeping bag. The temperature dropped as we were out there and it rained but I thought it was incredibly cozy. Our camels arrived that night.
On day three, we rode camels. I had the largest camel but the saddles aren’t soft. Just pieces of felt layered on top of each other. Me and my camel, Alfonzo, were comfortable walking at a slow gait but the 15-year-old wrangler kept speeding my camel up causing my rear end to be rubbed raw. We spent three hours riding our camels. The camels have a piece of wood through their noses with a rope attached. I think it looks painful but camels have high pain tolerance. For the first hour, we were clumped in a group holding on to each other’s ropes as our camels walked over small sand dunes but then we were left to guide our own camels once we reached flat ground. My lazy camel lumbered behind the others knowing I had absolutely no control over him. Camels are strange animals. They look very smug with their slanted eyes but also look like small giraffes because of their long necks. Then when they turn their heads back to look at you, it’s very snake-like. When we finally stopped three hours later, I had to topple off my camel. I was too sore to lift my leg over the hump. We were asked if we wanted to continue riding after lunch but nobody said yes.
We spent the night at Gobi Erdene, another ger camp. Sort of like the Three Camel Lodge but not as luxurious. This ger camp conserves its electricity all day by only turning it on at 7 pm. As soon as the clock struck 7, it was humorous to watch everyone come walking into the main building to charge their phones and cameras.
On day four, we drove from Gobi Erdene to the Singing Sand Dunes. Ditching our shoes at the base of the 600-foot sand dune, my confident gait up the dune quickly transitioned into a battle-weary crawl on my hands and feet. If it wasn’t for my dad I don’t think I would have made it to the top. Or it would have taken me significantly longer as I had to stop every 10 steps as the dune became steeper to climb and I struggled to breathe. Once at the top, I was happy to just sit upon the spine that ran between the top of the dunes.
I saw enough horses, camels, goats and sheep to last me a lifetime. During day five, at a Naadam festival, which was plopped down in the middle of nowhere, we watched camels being milked, baby horses were being wrangled up, and the sheep were getting their fur sheered. This wasn’t a real Naadam. The contestants were all children who were using this day to practice wrestling, archery, and horse racing. But I’m happy my parents got to see the festival even though it wasn’t a genuine one.
Day six was my favorite day. We walked through a park but I can’t remember the name of it anymore. The park was beautiful. The hills had rocky crags at the tops. Small rivulets of a stream criss-crossed its way through the valley. I gave up on trying to keep my shoes dry every time we had to cross from one side to the other. Small Pikas were running around. They are like a chipmunk/mouse hybrid with large ears who squeak, “Pip pip!” I call them Pikachus.
On our last day in the Gobi, we visited the Flaming Cliffs. So called because when the sun is shining, the cliffs glow red. But it was cloudy as we were there and later we had to leave earlier than expected because of a lightning storm. The Flaming Cliffs is where the world’s first dinosaur eggs were discovered along with many more dinosaur archaeological finds. If you look and dig around closely you can find tiny miniscule pieces of dinosaur eggs.
When we returned back to the city, all our phones dinged with all the messages and emails we couldn’t look at while in the desert.
The trip was for two-weeks but my parents stayed for two extra days. We walked more around UB, went shopping, and saw a film. I was so pleased they came to Mongolia. Visiting via Nomadic Expeditions was perfect because we were comfortable as we traveled and there was something new every day. But what was nice was how the itinerary wasn’t jam-packed with too many activities. We still had plenty of down-time and relaxation. The whole trip was perfect and I came back to my town a few pounds heavier from all the food I devoured.
I hope you can view all the pictures. Internet is very poor where I am.
After the long Tsagaan Sar break, all schools have a “wear your deel to school day.”
A deel, if you remember, is Mongolia’s traditional clothing that is worn in the countryside and during holidays such as Tsagaan Sar during the winter and Nadaam during the summer.
There is nothing more adorable then seeing small children in their deels. At my school, there were more younger students strutting about in their deels then the older high school students.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Students also played shagai, an ankle bone game.
When you toss the ankle bones, the four shagai positions are from left to right: camel, horse, sheep, and goat.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Another game students played is when you throw an ankle bone into the air and with the same hand try to swipe up as many ankle bones from the floor before you catch the falling ankle bone. If you successfully catch the ankle bone, you keep the ankle bones you swiped.
I spent 8 hours standing on my feet as a hostess at Shaw’s Crab House counting down the hours while listening to Michael Buble Christmas music on loop.
1 January 2017:
I had a winter picnic out in the Mongolian countryside.
Blue and white were the only colors I could see for miles across the Mongolian steppe, speckled occasionally with brown and black horses. It was refreshing to not see telephone wires marring the view, to be free of constant pollution, and to not hear the sound of traffic.
With Adiya, one of my counterparts, and her family, we first visited a horse monument. Enclosed within a square of stupas are 10 large horse statues. All are in memory of my aimag’s best race horses.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
After our walk around, we got back into the car and drove on. We drove straight up the main – and only paved road – for 20 minutes when suddenly, the car took an immediate left off of the road and onto a trail that is only visible to the Mongolian eye. We bumped our way over the steppe closer toward the hills until the car finally came to a halt in the middle of the snowy field. It was here on untouched snow where we had our picnic.
Blankets were laid out, milk tea was poured, and soup was prepared on a little traveling stove. We stayed out there until our fingers and toes lost all feeling.
In addition to this month, I turned 24. I spent the day time at an English teacher’s seminar hosted by the State Department. Peace Corps Volunteers were there as a formality but otherwise sat in the back with our computers. In the evening, I had dinner and cake with my site mates and two counterparts. But the best part of the day was having my family, including my two grandmothers in Sweden and Scotland, calling my phone with birthday messages.
More January highlights:
Our aimag had a two-week winter break. At first I wondered what I would do during that time and regretting not booking a flight to a beach somewhere but I had a comfortable and lazy break. I read “Me Before You,” (book is way better than the movie) and “After You,” (super depressing), and I bought an oven.
I’m creating a video for a Peace Corps challenge. The theme is hospitality. Adiya took me to her sister’s ger to shoot video and I was invited over to my neighbor’s apartment. True to their hospitable nature, I have been eating so much buuz and drinking an incredible amount of milk tea for this video.
To make lesson planning more efficient, I create a monthly sign up sheet. Teachers are accountable for showing up after signing their name and available time for all to see. Now I’m teaching more classes except when something silly happens. The door to class 10A was jammed shut and nobody could open it. The students were inside while I was in the hallway. Eventually, the door had to be splintered and ripped off its hinges.
January was one of the coldest months. For one week we had a Siberian winter. I thought my face was going to crack. I stayed inside as much as humanly possible watching Brooklyn 99, the Gilmore Girls revival, and a very long movie, “Palm Trees in the Snow.”
Mongolia’s biggest holiday is swiftly approaching – Tsagaan Sar, Mongolia’s lunar New Year celebration. The market is crowded with people shopping for presents, food, and new deels. Homes are being scrubbed clean for families and friends who will invade. My counterparts have contributed to buying a winter deel for me. I’m building the anticpation by waiting until the holiday to post a picture of my deel in all its glory.
First holidays abroad and I must admit, it was tough on me. There were just too many Buchanan traditions I missed out on that I craved all throughout December such as seeing our Swedish Christmas tomtes decorating our home; decorating the Christmas tree; baking Swedish gingerbread cookies while munching on the dough; walking amongst all the twinkling lights that crown Chicago; eating a smorgasbord for dinner; driving to the airport at midnight with my dad to pick up my brother; and pestering my dad with my incessant chatter that makes him wish my brothers came home more often.
But Peace Corps Volunteers must adapt to new changes in their lives. So I made the most of my new situation. Just like in America, all stores in my aimag were decorated for Christmas and New Year’s. The government square had a large Christmas tree in the center. In the market, small Christmas trees were being sold along with lights, ornaments, little Santa jackets, and ribbons. I played Christmas music in the mornings and plugged my Christmas lights in every night.
My school held a Christmas/New Year concert in the sports hall. Each grade decorated a small Christmas tree that were lined up alongside the stage. Students sang and danced and Santa gave out presents to the best students. The Russian Santa isn’t a jolly, fat, and red suited fella we’re used to but is tall, thin, and dresses all in white.
I also attended the Young Teachers Christmas (Shinjil) party with my site mate, Jenni. The hall was decorated with snowflakes hanging from the ceiling, a Christmas tree was flashing away in a corner, banners saying “Merry Christmas” hung on the walls, Santa made an appearance, and women wore glittery dresses. At seeing the dresses, it felt like I had been transported back to high school prom while simultaneously feeling under dressed. Yet, the real Christmas miracle was having fresh pineapple delivered to our table. My first taste of pineapple in 6 months.
During IST, Peace Corps gave each aimag a turkey. Having never prepared a turkey before, I did extensive research before undertaking the task. What did I come to realize? That a big turkey requires a big pot that requires a large refrigerator. A counterpart supplied me with the pot but the pot barely managed to get into my tiny fridge. I was lying in bed when I heard a thumping sound but I thought it was the children next door to me. The thump came again and then I remembered that a massive pot filled to the rim with salt water in which a turkey was floating in was in my fridge. I caught the pot before the entire shelf came crashing down. My Friday night was spent duct taping my shelf back up and cutting up the turkey into many pieces to be put into a smaller pot. There was turkey blood everywhere.
Nevertheless, our Christmas Eve feast was a success with the turkey, roasted potatoes and carrots, and cinnamon rolls. On Christmas, we prepared a brunch that included blueberry scones and strawberries. I chatted with my family and opened my Christmas packages my parents sent. It was a Christmas spent with my sitemates who become like family during your service.
For New Year’s Eve, my counterpart invited me to her home. She had spent two hours the day before preparing buuz, Mongolian steamed dumplings. I feasted on the most delicious buuz I’ve ever had. At midnight, 2017 swept in as little fireworks popped in the sky.
What’s my New Year resolution? I don’t really have one except to continue my service as a Peace Corps Volunteer.
Packing for two-years of your life is tough. I can still vividly remember back in May 2016 when I spent all week in my basement attempting to sort out all my stuff. Clothes were strewn everywhere and piles of miscellaneous were scattered all over the place. I even had my mom come down and I would hold up a t-shirt or a dress and ask, “Yes? No? Maybe?” In the airports, people went around me like I was a rock in a stream. No one wanted to mess with me as I struggled with over a hundred pounds.
There is no right or wrong answers when it comes to packing. Bring what you think is necessary and important for you. Packing lists you find online only proved to be a little helpful for me. Thus, you will read a snippet of what I packed to avoid a nervous breakdown.
There is not much out there about Mongolia. When standing in the travel section in a bookstore, there were 30 books about China, 15 about Japan, and 1 – if you’re lucky – about Mongolia. But guess what? Mongolia pretty much has everything! During your first three months of service, you will be under a travel ban but Peace Corps does give permission if you need to go to UB for something crucial such as winter clothes or a broken computer. If you live in a small soum, you can travel to your local aimeg.
Here’s what I brought with me to Mongolia. I will not give quantities because if you want to go ahead and bring 10 black t-shirts or a lot of dresses, bring 10 black t-shirts and a lot of dresses. Pack your style and prepare to be a little scruffy.
Mongolians don’t care if you re-wear the same outfit.
Pack what you can be versatile with. For example, I have a floral dress from Forever 21. I can tuck it into my skirts, I wear long-sleeve under armor underneath when it’s cold, and I can wear it with leggings. Plus, it washes and dries quickly.
More than half of you will be washing your clothes in a bucket so don’t bring material that can easily get destroyed.
Pack an equal amount of professional and casual clothes.
Pack a cardigan. Women in Mongolia don’t show off their shoulders especially at work. Even at parties, most women wear dresses that cover their shoulders. You won’t get arrested for indecency. It’s just how it is and you’ll avoid a light scolding during your first week.
If your computer is over 6 years old, buy a new one but not the latest Apple computer. You will use your computer a lot and you don’t want your computer to suddenly break. I have Microsoft Windows 10.
Height matters. I am 6 feet tall with size 10 feet. Therefore, I had to pack all my shoes: running shoes, walking shoes, flats, sandals, winter boots, and my leather boots. If you are short with small feet, you will be luckier in the clothing and shoe department.
When you land in Mongolia, you will have no time to go shopping. Then when you arrive at your training site, your site might not have what you need. So, pack extra deodorant, a big bottle of lotion, a big tube of toothpaste, underwear, etc..
At your permanent site, your counterparts will take you out shopping for whatever you might need. It’s not necessary to pack pots, pans, forks, spoons, a sewing kit, a tent, etc..
Whatever it is that you absolutely can’t find, your family can send you a package.
What am I most grateful for?
My kindle. Small with a battery that lasts forever, it is my favorite possession.
My hard drive. Pack two – at least 1 TB – and have the other as backup. Upload movies and shows to it. If you don’t know how to do that kind of stuff like me, you can have media exchanges with other volunteers. You will be my best friend if you come with the latest movies and shows. Also, back up your computer.
My pillow and two pillowcases. Mongolians don’t use pillows and if they do, it’s packed with sand or material found in beanie babies. You also can’t find pillow cases.
Special items from home. A family calendar, a small photo album, my Chicago Blackhawks t-shirt, my flannel shirt, a journal, many types of teas, cards friends and family wrote to me, and comfy pants.
My winter gear. I packed my winter coat, a lot of under amour, thick socks, winter boots, and my hat. Winter will hit you fast and you don’t want to be caught off guard without a coat.
My running shorts. Summers get very hot and I wore my shorts every day outside of school during training. Even now when my apartment gets very hot, I wear my shorts.
What do I have that is necessary?
A headlamp. Even though I live in an apartment, I have had power outages.
An external power charger. During the long power outages, you still have something to charge your items with.
Duct tape and clear scotch tape to fix all your problems.
A pocket knife.
Lotion. Lotion is expensive and most lotion has chemicals like bleach in it.
Stickers. Students love stickers! If you have trouble motivating students to do their work, pull out your stickers. I brought stickers for all seasons and holidays.
Extra ear buds.
Spices, especially cinnamon.
What did my parents send in care packages?
School supplies like flash cards, larger notebooks, folders, more pens and pencils, and a map of the United States to show students.
More chapstick, tea, and lotion.
A few more casual t-shirts and comfy pants.
Starbursts, gummy bears, trail mix, and Nature Valley bars.
Extra chargers for when mine mysteriously disappeared or died.
DVDs for fun.
What do I wish I could have packed but had no space for?
A smaller sleeping bag. Peace Corps gives you a sleeping bag but it’s enormous and weighs a ton. It just isn’t possible to lug it around with you when traveling.
More sweaters. I thought, “Hey, I can just buy some,” but that’s not true. Cashmere sweaters – while significantly cheaper in Mongolia compared to in America – are still expensive on a Peace Corps budget and most sweaters I find unflattering.
A more glamorous dress for teacher and holiday parties. At a Christmas party, it felt like I was at my high school prom.
What will Peace Corps give you?
A cell phone.
A sleeping bag.
A plug adapter with six outlets.
A bug net.
A medical kit but I recommend packing extra vitamins and Airborne.
A water filter.
What was I able to buy in Mongolia?
A morning robe.
A wool dress.
A cashmere scarf.
Camel socks and camel leggings.
Don’t change your style while packing. If you prefer dresses over pants, pack your dresses. If you like nail polish, pack your nail polish. Don’t pack what you would never catch yourself wearing in the States. The same for hobbies. If you have never knitted a thing in your life, don’t pack up extra space with items you might never use. If you think you can sacrifice your winter coat for something else more important, go for it. If you have never kept a journal, don’t feel compelled to bring a journal. If you love coffee, bring a french press. If you like wearing high heels, bring your best pair.
So, relax, breathe, and remember, you are all in the same boat. You’ll have funny stories to retail. Most of all, don’t freak out and compare what you are packing to somebody else’s. All will be well.